Kansas House panel endorses Topeka split in congressional redistricting

TOPEKA – Topeka would be split between two congressional districts, with the Statehouse and heavily minority city neighborhoods moving into a district with far-flung western Kansas farming communities, under a redistricting plan approved Monday by a state House committee.

The Redistricting Committee endorsed the plan to divide Topeka on a 12-11 vote, with House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican who appointed himself chairman, breaking a tie among its other members. The measure goes to the House for debate later this week.

Legislators must redraw the state's four congressional districts to account for shifts in population over the past decade. The 1st District, of western and central Kansas, is nearly 58,000 people short of the ideal population of 713,280 and must gain territory and residents.

Many Republicans oppose proposals to bring Manhattan, home of Kansas State University, into the 1st District from the 2nd District of eastern Kansas. Also, the House last week rejected a proposal supported by O'Neal to split the Kansas City area between two districts, moving part of it into the 1st, and an alternative plan to dramatically change district lines in south-central and southeast Kansas.

The House's rejection of different proposals last week forced the Redistricting Committee to start over in drawing a congressional plan, under conditions that pushed members to seriously consider splitting Topeka.

“We backed into it,” said Rep. Clay Aurand, a Courtland Republican who supported the latest plan. “The 1st District had to have more people, and nobody was volunteering too much, and so we had to make a choice.”

But Topeka has never been split between two districts, and it has been in a northeast or eastern Kansas district since 1899. The proposal to divide it drew bipartisan opposition from area lawmakers.

The plan would create a finger of land in the 1st District that covers Democratic-leaning, heavily minority areas on the city's east side, while leaving wealthier, mostly white and GOP-leaning areas on the west side in the 2nd District.

The city of Lawrence – and the University of Kansas campus – has been split between the 2nd and the 3rd District, centered on the Kansas City area, for the past 10 years. But most plans considered by lawmakers have moved all of Lawrence into the 2nd, because the 3rd District is overpopulated.

The Senate approved a bipartisan congressional redistricting proposal last month that included Manhattan in the 1st District. Both O'Neal and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback oppose the idea, arguing that keeping Manhattan with other eastern Kansas communities will better protect a planned federal biosecurity lab there.

Political considerations also are a factor. The Kansas Republican Party criticized the Senate's plan because it would result in a slightly more Democratic 2nd District for Rep. Lynn Jenkins, the senior member of the state's all-GOP delegation in the U.S. House.

The House committee's proposal would leave Jenkins and freshman Rep. Kevin Yoder, of the 3rd District, with slightly more Republican districts. The 1st District, represented by freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp, would become significantly more Democratic – but still remain the state's most GOP-leaning district.

The House committee's plan is “Bob Dole 1,” under “Drafts” on the Legislature's redistricting website,